Saturday, 5 March 2011

Favela. Chic?

Rafael, our guide in the favela
I learned the word favela when I lived in Paris.  One of our local haunts was Favela Chic, a Brazilian restaurant-come-night-club where we would get drunk on caipirinhas and then get up on the table and go crazy to Brazilian soul, funk, rock and samba.  It would get so hot they would spray us all with soda water from the bar.  A Brazilian friend of my husband's came to stay with us once and went there every single night.  Sod the snooty Parisian bars and bistrots - he wanted some good Brazilian fun the likes of which, ironically, he didn't find in Brazil.  Oh, those were the days....

Anyway, for those that don't know, Favela means 'slum' and there are a lot of them here in Rio.  Since my Favela Chic days I have always felt that I was missing something living in my middle class appartment blocks with high ceilings and (almost) sea-views.  I've always been desperate to experience 'real' Brazil.  People just don't seem to dance on tables in Flamengo, so I've always just assumed that all the fun must be going on in the jumbled red brick ghettos into which Mr Becoming has always forbidden me to venture, for good reasons.

In general, favelas are dangerous places.  Many of them are run by drug gangs and the normal rules of the city do not apply there.   They are the cauldron in which horror stories brew.  I watch the news.  I've seen Cidade de Deus and Tropa de Elite.  These media images - whether fictional or true - helped turn the "favela" into a big scary monster in my mind; but the truth is that they are where a huge percentage (I've seen estimates from 19% - 35%) of the city's population call home. 

Anyway, after five years of living in Brazil, I visited a favela for the first time this week.  I took the free, ten minute ride on the funicular railway to the top of Dona Marta (also confusingly called Santa Marta) in Botafogo.  The favela was the first in the city to be 'pacified' and is home to the headquarters of the UPP, Rio's pacifying police force.  As such, it's considered a safe place to visit and they have even erected a little tourist information booth at the bottom of the hill where you can pick up a map and arrange for a local guide to show you around.

Just Another Boringly Splendid View in Rio
There are a few points of interest in the community.  Foremost is the incredible view that is just a short walk from the top station, of the entire Enseada de Botafogo.  I know, yawn, yet another great view in Rio, but believe me, it's classic postcard stuff.  The main reason I wanted to go up there, however, was to see the Michael Jackson area.  The pop god filmed the video for 'They Don't Really Care About Us' there and in his honour they erected a pretty nasty bronze statue of him, and a mosaic wall that depicts him as he must have appeared on a Brazilian postage stamp.  I'm such a fan.  It rocked.

I can't deny, though, that the most fascinating part of the visit was walking down the warren of staircases and narrow alleys that lead back to the bottom of the hill.  We were guided by Rafael, a kid who just appeared and, without comment or acknowledgment, appointed himself our guide.  We passed hundreds of red brick and wooden homes piled on top of one another, from which sounds of daily novelas and chores emanated.  Some homes seemed quite substantial. Others, balanced precariously on rotten wood stilts, defied belief.  Doors left ajar offered split-second snapshots of normal life inside tiny but meticulously-kept homes, but the space between them and the concrete steps  was deep with rubbish.

I also can't deny that I was absolutely terrified.  Alley ways narrowed and darkened.  We passed a group of male youths just hanging.  My legs were shaking - mostly from staircase fatigue  but also from fear.  I was definitely struggling against the scary monster in my head and having doubts about our little guide...was he leading us to trouble?  Of course it was just in my head.  The 'threatening' youths were just having a drink at a little tiny bar hidden under a house, and acknowledged us with friendly grins as we went passed.  Finally, the quality of light changed, and we emerged from the claustrophobic human warren into a square whose surrounding buildings have been painted in rainbow colours that make the place glow.  I relaxed when I saw some UPP guys and we even sat and had a beer and watched life go by for a while.

It's hopefull to think how the quality of life for people in Dona Marta has improved since the favela was pacified and the community has been integrated into 'normal' city life, but going there opened my eyes to the poor conditions in which some people here live.  I can't imagine what it must be like to live in a non pacified community.  Certainly, there is nothing 'chic' about it, and probably not that much dancing on tables either.  I shall make do with shaking my booty on the table at home - I'm suddenly more appreciative of my high ceilings; at least I won't bump my head.  Let's dance, MJ!

Love You Michael!


  1. Thanks for sharing your experience :) I still haven't gone to a favela here in Brazil, but I've been to a few in Mexico.

    This was also very well written, especially because you used the word "Sod". :) Brought me back to my British grandparents.

  2. The favela's with UPP are actually safer then down the hills. Not only because of the police, but also because the community keeps an eye & everyone knows everyone (just like in small European villages).

    And if you want to see people dancing, head out for a funk party on Fridays or actually any day in the weekend or holidays, people will be dancing, drinking & having fun.

    I always take my European visitors to some clubs in Rio, but lets face it nightlife here is pretty limited. However... the favela nights are always a huge succes!

  3. Hi,

    I came across your blog through one of the expat websites. It's a great blog!

    I'm an Edinburgh based artist undertaking a global project which is based upon the first ship to circumnavigate the world. The ship was called the Nao Victoria, and one of the locations it laid anchor at was Rio de Janeiro. We're trying to send the ship back around the globe, but digitally, and as such we are looking for volunteers in certain locations.

    I'm looking for a volunteer in Rio, who speaks English well (no other skills apart from Internet access required!). It will take less than 5 mins, but is vital for the success of the project. The volunteer will be credited in the final exhibition in Edinburgh in June.

    I was hoping, as a Scot in Rio, you might be able to lend me a hand? Or if not, if you might know someone who would be interested? I would be extremely grateful.

    If you would like to know more about the project, the website is There is information on the 'About' and 'Call For Volunteers' pages. If you have any questions you can contact me at

    Thank you. And it's been interesting learning a bit more about Rio!

    Best wishes,

  4. I am so glad to have stumbled upon your blog - it is fascinating!

    I'd love you to join me for my Expat Linky Party on March 19th :)

  5. Tasha - when I first proposed to raise some money for a children´s art program and school supplies in the Rocinhia favela my mother in law wrote me off as an idiot with a death wish.

    I´ve been in social services all my career and I know stubborn racism when it takes a dump in the middle of the room. So I kept my mouth shut and went to work on the project.

    When people like my mother in law (and so many other so-called middle class Brazilians) scoff at the poor as filthy and ignorant marginals - I wryly ask: "How much are you paying your empregada, and where the hell is she supposed to live on that salary?"

    Glad you got a glimpse of the other side of Rio.

  6. As a proud resident of the biggest favela in Rio, Rocinha, please do not underestimate the kind of fun we can have here..people think the UPP's somehow are saviours, but they are not..unfortunately the whole system is broke and corrupt, we all know this..

    yes we have the drug guys here but as a resident I have never felt threatened or bothered by I like what they do? No...but what am I to do..I blame the users..regardless my life goes on. favela or not, I never want to leave here.

    I love my life here and I LOVE ROCINHA!!!

    Zezinho da Rocinha

  7. @Zezinho da Rocinha And I love your blog. Thanks for your comments!